The sermon for week July 22, 2012
REMEMBER, Ephesians 2:11-22
“Remember.” It is a powerful word. Much of our life is spent remembering. The writer of Ephesians says to the Ephesian Christians, “remember.”
I will forever, however long forever is for someone seventy years old, remember the days and months I have spent with you and I could not be more thankful. Never could I have anticipated, thought, or dreamed that at the end of my pastoral service, I would get the opportunity to serve a congregation that is so intent on honoring the question, allowing the freedom for people to explore their individual faith journey while at the same time as a community bringing the issues of the world into dialogue with our faith and at bare minimum saying for all of us it means serving the least among us.
I am so grateful to be a part of a church that has sponsored a dialogue between religion and science, that sponsors Bible studies and reading groups, a Taize service, and annually sends church members to do important work in impoverished areas of the country and builds Habitat homes in our community.
It is thrilling to be a witness to the incarnation-al Love of God in this congregation, monthly dedicating shawls knit by our members to be wrapped around strangers who need a bit of warmth, physically and emotionally, or the women, working a year on crafts to sell at the Bazaar where every dime that is collected will be given away, or knowing when the need arises for a memorial luncheon to honor the passing of beloved family member there is a group of volunteers who will transform Wright Hall into an elegant room with linen table cloths, fresh flowers and delicious food where family and friends can share memories and offer support to one another.
The writer of Ephesians says, “remember,” and I do and always will remember with utter gratitude and fondness, this time, these days, I spend with you.
So, you have your own memories. There was that time when first you entered here and something spoke to you in a word or a song or a handshake and you felt welcomed and eventually this became your church, and you are thankful. Or, quite differently, you have always been here, you were confirmed here and maybe even your children. This is your church home and it always has been and it is with gratefulness you remember.
I particularly remember how gracious Bill Chidester was in providing me a place beside him, allowing me to share with him and Luke in the pastoral care of this church. I am filled with gratefulness each time I remember.
We all remember. We all cherish these wonderful memories, but curiously when the writer of Ephesians says, “remember,” these are not the memories he asks us to recall. In fact, he is asking for an opposite kind of remembering. He writes to the Christians in Ephesus saying, “Remember that at one time you Gentiles were separated from Christ, alienated from Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God.”
He is not asking for the good times but the bad times. He wants the Christians of Ephesus to remember when they were excluded, when they felt left out, when perhaps the handshake wasn’t given or the look said, you are not welcome here. perhaps in this church or some other church or some other place or group. He uses the words, “separated,” “alienated,” “stranger.” He is asking them to remember what it was like to be an the outside looking in.
Remember how you felt when you were all alone in a room full of people where everybody seemed to know everybody but you knew no one. Or, if you have perhaps been one of the few who always felt included, always knowing you were accepted and embraced, remember further back, remember in the history of your family when it was different for your grandparents or great grandparents, excluded perhaps because they were immigrants or because they didn’t have the education or lived in a neighborhood to which you only return to drive through and say, “This is from which I came.”
In one way or another, personally or in our family history or through the ethnic or economic origin or our religion, we all have in our past, the memory of what it means to be an outsider, excluded, just as the Gentiles, as a group and as individuals, in the Christian Church in Ephesus could remember a time when they were not welcomed, when the “we” did not include them, a time when they were “separated,” “alienated,” “strangers,” and “without hope and without God.”
There is no greater description of our alienation than these words. It is a description of our life without Christ. It is a description of the place from which many of us have come and the place in which many remain. Lost, separated, strangers, without hope...these are powerful words, but they are powerful because of their emptiness. It reminds me of the verse from Ecclesiastes (4:2,3), “And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive; but better than both is he who has not yet been born.”
The writer of Ephesians writes the Christians of that region and tells them, “Don’t ever forget that time in your life. Don’t ever forget the pain it created in your soul. Don’t ever forget what it felt like to be lonely or unnoticed or bullied or simply invisible. But why? Why hold these painful memories? Why stare at the wounds that have healed but still bare the scare? Why never forget?
It is because from these memories are born the compassion and empathy to be what you are called to be, a people of welcome for all who enter here. It is because you can remember what it is like to be on the outside, to be thought of as different, your hand can reach out to the stranger and your arms embrace the person or the people who perhaps all the rest of the world has deemed unworthy of inclusion. Your wounds are the same as Jesus’, making it possible for the world to know, there is no one or no people, God’s Love does not include. The church in microcosm is meant to reflect the macrocosm of God’s Love for the world.
The writer of Ephesians says, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility.”
The church has one message, one reason for being and that is to proclaim, “For God so loved the world,” and in every generation from the very beginning of the church which struggled to understand what this meant and ultimately concluded it included Gentiles as well as Jews, so across the generations and into our own generation, the same struggle persists, the same debate, how wide is God’s mercy, how deep is God’s love, and with each knock at the door, we are confronted anew with the same issue, a different person, a different group asking for admittance, and it will be our compassion, our empathy, born of our scares of rejection that will enable us to transcend our suspicions and prejudices, and enable us to say to the one on the other side, “come on in, know the same Love of God we have come to know in the wounds of Jesus Christ.”
“All are welcome, all are welcome in this place.” Abraham Heschel, quoted in a book currently being read by one of our book groups, The Luminous Webb by Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit...when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.” It is the same compassion that moved Christ to heal the outcasts recorded in our Gospel lesson read this morning.
This same compassion is what keeps us real, and it will be our compassion that will enable us to see the vision, the miracle of what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ, and that is, as stated in Ephesians, a new humanity, making peace, reconciling us, making us one body, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.
The gospel is more than individual salvation, it is a new humanity, where all are one - Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, male and female, laborer and manager, young and old, and by our welcome, the strength of our welcome, the courage of our welcome, the compassion of our welcome, we get to see every Sunday when we gather for worship, the visibility of God’s love on earth as it is in heaven, the new humanity revealed in Christ.
This is the inevitable course of the universe, and it is already happening. Increasingly we are recognizing our interdependency. Increasingly we are seeing that we belong to one destiny. Increasingly we are aware through the sciences, “we are all stardust,” all connected, all one, worshipping a God whose love is for the world.
It is all a symphony, including all of creation and each of our lives, the music of God expressing God’s Love with nothing, no one left out.
Remember, once you were no people, without hope and without God, you still carry the scares, but now you know, you are God’s people and the same love with which God loves you, is the love God has for all people, and is the love God asks of you.
I end with these words, sung by the operatic baritone, Todd Thomas, in the opening worship service at Chautauqua Institution where Sharon and I vacationed last week. It is from the hymn entitled, “The Love of God,” and it expresses for me, the kind of love, though perhaps always falling short, we try and hope to express in our church by our welcome.
It begins with this line, “The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell.” Then there is this verse, moving me to pray, “God, make me more loving in my heart.” Here is the verse of the hymn:
“Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies of parchment made;
were ev’ry stalk on earth a quill, and ev’ry man a scribe by trade:
to write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry;
nor could the scroll contain the whole, tho’ stretched from sky to sky.”
That is the love God calls us to incarnate in our lives. Let us pray: God, may your love be our song. Amen. Oh, may everyone who enters here have the same pleasurable memories you give to me.